As I looked out the car window, watching the trees pass by, it all finally started to register. The entire weekend had gone by in a flash, almost as if I had been ushered from locale to locale without thought or reason. The pains already creeping into my legs and back were concrete enough, but adrenaline had, early on in the voyage, declared itself enough of a permanent member of my bloodstream to blur my recall of just how I came to get those aches…

The prelude to this tale might be seen as the opening to a Rocky movie, briefly summarizing the outcomes of past events…a hard day's work out in Suffolk, a few lucky breaks, a newfound sense of experience tugging and pulling as best it could to help me along…the seeding rounds, the interminable waiting for the hand-held tabulations, the exhausting feat of fencing three direct elimination matches in under an hour…a small sense of accomplishment that came into being and tucked itself into a secluded corner of my heart at the precise moment I scored the clinching touch in the qualifying match…the proud look on my ]father]'s face as I returned to my seat to await my next pairing. And suddenly, the stage was set for my journey to Marlboro, Massachusetts to participate in the 1997 Junior Olympics of Fencing.

It seemed like mere days later that we disembarked for the small New England town--in reality, five months separated the qualifiers and the championships. The car ride up seems unimportant now, for it just served as a catalyst for some of the fears and insecurities I had known were coming and half-expected anyway.

The truly surreal portion of the voyage, which would be halted only by the competition itself, began as my parents and I entered the revolving door of our hotel. Fencers, fencers everywhere and not a friendly face in sight. Under normal circumstances, I'm lucky if I meet one fencer for every thousand people I encounter. That day, however, every stranger was a possible opponent. Every fencing bag sprawled on the lobby floor belonged to another competitor; every team jacket showed the great lengths we had all traversed in order to be here. Alaska, Hawaii, New Jersey…over a thousand fencers from all parts of the nation had gathered to prove themselves. I was in a foreign place, surrounded by strangers, and yet I knew why every single person at the hotel that day was there. I knew the sacrifices they had all made and hardships they had all endured in order to earn the right to sleep at that hotel on that night. I knew that they knew this was probably the most important weekend in their fencing careers.

And to add another twist, I and my friends from Long Island who had also qualified (ironically, all of them were from Garden City, our arch-rival in school competition) had arranged to give ourselves a small bubble of familiarity to try to stay afloat the improbable sea of chaotic order we had all stumbled into. We ate dinner together that night at an area restaurant, trying to intentionally distract ourselves from the importance of the occasion. All the same, even as we laughed and joked over trivial matters, there were obvious hints of the grim determination that we were all hiding under our lighthearted expressions. Physically rested but mentally exhausted from trying to be so jovial and happy, we retired for the night…

…and awoke, it seemed, two minutes later. Competition Day had arrived, and I went through the motions of preparing myself for the day ahead. I met a few friends for breakfast, but it was just another necessary motion that needed to be completed, as easily and quietly as possible--I'm not sure if we even exchanged more than a cursory nod to each other as we sat down. My parents and I trudged to our car and made our way over to the competition site.

The venue itself is nearly impossible to describe. The most strips I had ever seen set up before numbered eight or nine; twenty-five were present for the Junior Olympics. I had always known at least half the competitors beforehand; here I knew only a paltry few, and they might as well have been strangers. And we all just kept going through our motions, keeping ourselves inside our familiar warm-up routines and preparations…it was all we could do to keep sane.

Then, suddenly, the day began in earnest. The seeding pool assignments were posted, hundreds of people flocked like stampeding bison towards the computer printout. We found our assigned strip, cursed at the fencing gods a bit, and suited up. For the first time all weekend, my head was clear and my thoughts were lucid. I went to the strip when called, fenced to what I knew to be the best of my capabilities each match, and sat down serenely after each match to reflect. All the mechanisms that are slowly molded and crafted with each passing day churned and glided for that hour; it was the culmination of years of hard work. That newfound sense of experience that I had discovered during the qualifiers took control and led.

I went 1-4 and barely missed the cut for the next round. I said a quick goodbye to my friends, turned, walked out of the building, and went home.

And so I sit watching the trees go by, feeling the pain in my legs grow beyond a mere annoyance. I would have to remember to take some aspirin when I got home…

Up to RimRod's Fencing Autobiography
Back to Chapter Eleven: Journeyman
Forward to Chapter Twelve: Command and Control

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